Blacks in Denver Are ‘All Over the Place’

Zenitha Prince, Afro (Baltimore), August 24, 2008

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The gentrification of Five Points and the demographic trends in Denver as a whole is a study in integration, a social phenomenon often viewed through lens of many hues. “It’s all in your perspective, because if you talk to older people they’re resentful of the gentrification and of change,” says Councilman Michael Hancock of the 11th District. “But, if you talk to someone in my generation—I’m 39 years old—that represents progress to me—the ability to go where I want to go and live where I want to live.”

For Blacks in Denver, as elsewhere, that was not always the case. Though Denver has been fairly progressive in terms of advancing equal opportunity—the majority White city has elected an African-American and a Latino as mayor—at one time, it corralled its Black citizens into enclaves such as Five Points, Park Hill, Montbello and Green Valley Ranch.

Living in near isolation, Blacks created a social and economic microcosm of their own and Five Points was its center. There, at the five-way intersection formed at Welton, 27th Street, E. 26th Avenue and Washington Street, which gives it its name, Black businesses flourished. And famous Black musicians such as Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillepsie and others, who were barred from sleeping in the White hotels where they performed, would seek accommodations in Five Points, often playing for their keep and consequently, making the area a rich cultural hub.

“Five Points really became the cultural heart and apex of the African-American community back in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s,” Councilman Hancock recalls. “On Saturday, it’s where you went to party. But it was also where you could have a family outing even though it was a few blocks from home. “That’s where on Sunday, after church, all the Black families in their Sunday finest would come to have dinner—great fried chicken or catfish and macaroni and cheese—or stroll and enjoy good jazz.”

Still, the lure of integration was great, and for Blacks in Denver, it meant moving up to the east side, leaving all of that behind. “Every time we moved farther east, it represented progress,” Hancock says.

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But even as Black businesses in Five Points faltered, African Americans thrived—elsewhere. Since Blacks first began to trickle into the area to work for railroads and in mining camps in the mid-19th century, Denver has always represented a gold mine of opportunity.

Representing about 11 percent of the city’s population, Denver’s African-American community has the lowest rate of poverty in the nation, according to 2000 Census figures. And a plethora of federal jobs and employment opportunities in telecommunications, trade and other industries make Blacks here among the most highly educated and affluent African-American communities in the nation. Denver’s Blacks have a median income $30,775, which is above the national median.

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Councilman Hancock says a community loses a lot when he it lacks cohesion.

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There are political consequences as well. Several historically Black seats in the City Council—like Five Points’—and even the state’s House of Representatives are now filled by Whites. Alvertis Simmons, president of the Denver Million Family March and a longtime community activist, sees a need for a strong Black community.

“This ain’t Baltimore, Md.; this ain’t Gary, Ind., where I am from; there’s a lot of disunity in this town,” Simmons said. “We don’t have a ghetto as some folks would have it, not here in Denver. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. Certainly, you want to be able to go where the grass is cut and no trash is on the ground but then you also want that flavor of knowing if you go into your community you can smell barbecue, you can get that feeling of staying together.”

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